Why burn the stars and stripes these days when the more transcendent – and ubiquitous – symbols of all things American these days are the Nike swoosh or the golden arches of McDonalds? A dwindling coterie of Iranian firebrands may gather each year outside the old U.S. embassy in Tehran to dutifully torch Old Glory, but their ideological fellow travelers in most other places have long since graduated to trashing fast-food outlets.
When Hindu nationalist peasant farmers want to protest the entry of U.S. corporations into India’s food market in 1996, they torched a Kentucky Fried Chicken outlet. French farmers followed suit this year by trashing a McDonalds in order to protest U.S. exports of hormone-laced beef. Serbs protesting NATO’s bombing of Belgrade did the same last spring, as did Mexico City residents protesting California’s anti-immigrant Proposition 187 in 1994 and Danish anarchists who’d simply had enough of capitalism and money in 1996. Throwing trash cans through the windows wasn’t enough for Italian anti-NATO activists during the Kosovo war – they actually bombed three McDonalds outlets in Rome. And when South African Islamic fundamentalists wanted to express solidarity with international super-terrorist Osama Bin Laden last year, they bombed Cape Town’s Planet Hollywood.
America’s chain outlets are no longer safe even in their own backyard, as the Battle of Seattle proved – the enduring image of the anti-WTO ruckus was that of America’s own malcontents vandalizing a Starbucks.
In the minds of protestors, at least, chain restaurants have supplanted embassies and consulates as the primary symbol of America abroad. One obvious reason for venting outrage on Mickey D and KFC is their very ubiquity – as they lick their wounds, Ronald McDonald and the Colonel may take solace from the fact that they’re victims of their own success. In three short decades they’ve gone from being a novelty bit of Americana abroad to supplanting local cuisine as the fast food of choice in many of the world’s leading cities. And while embassies are heavily guarded and located far out of range of projectiles hurled by demonstrators, the wide windows of the U.S. fast food franchises that proliferate throughout the world’s cities are a tempting forest of windmills for Quixotes of every stripe – wearing Nike’s and composing their screeds on Microsoft software – who want to tilt pointlessly at symbols of American power.
The very fact that it’s now possible to get a Big Mac anywhere from Biloxi to Beijing symbolizes the fact that America’s most enduring and successful export since World War II has been its culture. Guardians of cultural purity abroad may howl – and even break windows – but at the end of the day McDonalds, Coke, Nike and ‘Baywatch’ are not symbols of occupation. They go only where they’re wanted, by people who’re prepared to pay for them. They’re out there because of a desire among people from Belgrade to Bombay to – as a perceptive Winston cigarette ad in my native South Africa put it – “taste America.”
Urban legend had it in my home country that during the insurrection of the mid-1980s, black kids who were rampaging through their impoverished townships burning down all symbols of apartheid authority were warned by their parents and peers that one township institution was off-limits: Kentucky Fried Chicken. It was not uncommon to see Colonel Sanders’ affably grinning unmolested through the thick smoke of burning stores all around him owned by suspected collaborators.
But don’t let such tales fuel the wishful thinking that countries with McDonalds won’t go to war with each other. The Kosovo conflict offers a cautionary tale against such sunny optimism. Indeed, Serbs munched on Big Macs throughout the ‘ethnic cleansing’ ’90s, and even though they targeted it for protests during the bombing, they were right back online when it reopened as soon as the bombing ended, sanctions notwithstanding. And Moscow may be awash in U.S. burger and pizza outlets, but that hasn’t stopped the emergence of an anti-American sentiment more pronounced – and more widespread – than at the height of the Cold War.
The chain restaurants are rarely an unambigous representation of American culture – in alien contexts they are able to mutate into phenomena not always immediately recognizable to their parent culture. Like the colonial administrators of yore “going native,” in some instances fast-food chains are inexorably reshaped by their host cultures. Indeed, there’s an interesting parallel between the spread of U.S. chain restaurants around the world and the Catholic Church’s evangelizing of the New World. Catholicism throughout the Americas today is riddled with elements of non-Christian indigenous and African religious traditions that survived the clash of cultures. Indigenous Mayan traditions, for example, are a vital element of Mexican Catholicism, as exemplified in the cult of the Virgin of Guadalupe. A substantial proportion of the faithful in Brazil, Haiti, Cuba, Puerto Rica and the Dominican Republic syncretized their Catholicism with Yoruba and Bakongo beliefs brought over by African slaves to create Candomble, Voudou and Santeria. In other words, the form taken by Catholicism in the New World wasn’t simply an extension of the Vatican’s cosmology and rituals to new pastures. Instead it represented an accommodation “negotiated” with remarkably resilient indigenous cultures.
In the same way, the rituals and menu of a McDonalds or a KFC in many foreign countries may not be entirely familiar to a U.S. patron – witness John Travolta and Samuel Jackson’s conversation about how Burger King’s ‘Whopper’ becomes a ‘Grande Royale’ in France in Quentin Tarantino’s “Pulp Fiction.” Kentucky Fried Chicken, for example, in Latin American countries (and even in some Latino neighborhoods in the U.S.) serves rice and beans, while the colonel also offers his Asian clientele fried rice. In deference to Hinduism, McDonalds in India has left beef off the menu, offering only “lamburgers.” And so on.
For a generation that grows up with the fast food chains ever-present, they’re no longer an American novelty – and the longer they’re part of the local landscape, the less “American” they become. Muscovites may have queued for hours to taste the forbidden Mcfruit when the Golden Arches first marched into post-Soviet Russia, but the next generation will know it simply as a local burger joint in which the staff smile more than is the norm. And so, in the same way that Japanese kids often express surprise that their American counterparts “also” have Mickey Mouse, new generations of kids around the world will claim those American fast food chains as their own – and even invest them with their own cultural meaning.
Already, a French example is showing how the fast-food chains can even be made to bite the hand that reared them. The latest generation of McDonalds France ads rely on “Ugly American” caricatures to align the Golden Arches firmly with Europe in its nationalist food fight with the U.S. “What I don’ t like about McDonalds France,” says an overweight U.S. cowboy in one, “is that it doesn’t buy American beef.” It specifies that French McDonalds only uses French beef, to “guarantee maximum hygienic conditions.” Another ad has a cowboy proclaiming incredulously, “McDonald’s France products come from the farm? And they eat them?” The locally made ads reflect European concern over hormone-treated American beef, which the EU has tried to ban.
The idea of an American chain restaurant trying position itself as the official sandwich of an anti-U.S. trade crusade may seem somewhat treasonable, but the logic of globalization suggests that within a generation, corporations and products may lose their ‘national’ identity. Nobody in Europe thinks of Fords as American cars, quite simply because they’ve been part of the local landscape – with their own designs and plants – for decades. In ten or twenty years time, it may be harder to persuade an anti-American mob to trash a McDonalds than it is today. Because like the Ford logo for the protestors of today, the next generation may not know the origins of the Golden Arches.